I recently read Joan Didion's book "The Year of Magical Thinking". I originally picked it up during a bout of semi-depression, hoping that I would feel better about myself after seeing how even someone as clever and insightful as Joan Didion could fall into the trap of magical thinking. The book was a bit of a letdown, but only because I had imbued it with some expectations of my own. I not only wanted Joan to commiserate with me, I wanted her to enlighten me with her newfound knowledge and offer me some profound moment of clarity that would immediately cause me to begin thinking in a new way. Hmm, do you think that was too much to ask from a book? Probably so.
My kids are the most shining example of magical thinking, as they ought to be. Kids are supposed to believe in their own special powers and their ability to alter their world. In fact, I have been known to take advantage of that on a daily basis. I tell them that Santa cannot come unless they are asleep and have taught them to "change" the red traffic lights to green at exactly the right moment. We parents count on the fact that as they grow, our children will be more able to distinguish fantasy from reality and the magical thinking will gradually diminish. Unfortunately, when a traumatic event happens in a child's life, things get a little muddy.
When my parents decided to split up, I was in the fourth grade. I remember thinking that they might stay together if I simply worked harder at keeping the peace. I ran around making promises to everyone that I had no hope of keeping and lie awake nights making plans to help everyone get along better. When I did sleep, I dreamt of an enormous colonial mansion that would house all of my family and friends. I was desperate to keep them all close to me.
During the day, I conscientously stepped over the cracks in the sidewalk, never cheated at games, washed my hands carefully after going to the bathroom, counted the steps from my bedroom to the main floor of our house, and put all my toys away every night in an effort to tidy up my little corner of the universe and keep my life in order. Counting the steps proved to be an especially fortunate habit when my parents began fighting more and more and I started walking in my sleep. Although knowing that there were sixteen stairs between my bedroom and the main floor and fourteen between the main floor and my parents' bedroom didn't prevent a divorce, it helped keep me from breaking my neck on my nightly journey to the end of their bed. My father tells me that every night around midnight I would silently appear at the foot of their bed, sound asleep, and he would dutifully carry me back up both flights of stairs and tuck me in again.
As an adult, I still engage in some magical thinking on a subconscious level. I find myself believing that if I just keep a tidy enough house, put healthy, homemade meals on the table three times a day, exercise the dog as much as he needs, read to my children and cater to their every desire and enable my husband to indulge in his dreams, my family will stay safe and together forever. So when someone falls ill or gets hurt, my carefully crafted bubble explodes in a shower of droplets and I panic. What do I do now? How do I keep this all together?
Reading Joan Didion's book didn't give me any solutions, but it did allow me to watch her journey through tragedy and heartache with her own family as she struggled to decipher her own place. I cried with her as she realized she could not alter the outcomes or control the circumstances, no matter what deals she struck. Desire is not a strong enough weapon in the war against intense sadness. I guess I'll just have to accept that knowing I'm not the only adult around whose superstitions make them feel safe.